What happens when an article is wrong? The Atlantic dissects Jesus' 'wife' story

Certainly the religion story of the week -- or rather the story of the non-story -- was a bombshell piece published by The Atlantic called “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife” about how a forged piece of papyrus managed to pass as an ancient manuscript.

You remember that media storm, right? You remember all the coverage of the claim that Jesus was married and that centuries of Christian doctrines regarding his celibacy were lies or worse.

What was depressing about the Harvard scholar who originally revealed this great find in 2012 was how many media eagerly pounced on it as final proof that Christianity is not what it says it is. GetReligion had plenty to say about the coverage here, herehere and here, as there weren’t a whole lot of voices out there asking questions about thoroughly this Harvard professor had vetted the material.

But one reporter did have questions. Some of us know Ariel Sabar from his 2008 book “My Father’s Paradise” about exploring his Jewish past in Iraqi Kurdistan. Having traveled in that corner of the world, I was amazed at the amount of “shoe leather reporting,” as we call it, that went into tracking down his family’s history.

Sabar put plenty of shoe leather into the Atlantic story, which starts thus:

On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy…
With King and her critics at loggerheads, each insisting on the primacy of their evidence, I wondered why no one had conducted a different sort of test: a thorough vetting of the papyrus’s chain of ownership.
When I started to dig, however, I uncovered more than I’d ever expected—a warren of secrets and lies that spanned from the industrial districts of Berlin to the swingers scene of southwest Florida, and from the halls of Harvard and the Vatican to the headquarters of the East German Stasi.

As you read this piece, you realize how skimpy the evidence was for this fragment being anywhere close to what it was claimed to be. The Harvard professor had barely a clue as to who the previous owner was, much less how that owner acquired something so ancient.


Because the reporter had been at the original conference in Rome where Karen King announced her find, he had access to her and was able to get copies of emails sent by the previous owner. He got a name off those emails, searched public records and traced the papyrus to a German couple in Venice, Fla. The couple were deceased, but there was a Walter Fritz, a business associate of theirs who was very much alive.

Sabar flew to Florida to talk to Fritz, who initially refused to see him. Sabar then flew to Berlin to do more detective work. (One thing this Atlantic article omits is how Sabar funded all these trips when all he had to go on was a set of questions.) Little by little he discovered the villain was Fritz, who figured out that King was just the kind of feminist religion scholar apt to believe Jesus was married and that maybe she’d fall for his deception.

Whereas the article really gets crazy in parts, it’s an amazing ride that shows how a reporter’s tenacity –- and luck –- revealed the huge sham behind the papyrus. It's all here. The phone calls, the interviews, the conferring with experts on ancient manuscripts. This kind of research takes months.

Finally, he called Karen King for her reaction, which is also described in the video featured at this website

When I called her in March while reporting my Atlantic story, she said she was not interested in commenting on -- or even hearing about -- my findings before publication. Thursday afternoon, however, she called me to say the story was “fascinating” and “very helpful.” …
I asked why she hadn’t undertaken an investigation of the papyrus’s origins and the owner’s background. “Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated,” she said.

Really, Professor King?

I would hope by now that journalists of all types would be highly suspicious of anyone who claims some sort of salacious evidence about biblical figures based on a sketchy manuscript. Even when they are proven wrong later, the damage has been done.

You think I'm whining? Just look at this list of YouTube videos about Jesus’ “wife” along with claims that Christianity has lied about Jesus up until now. 

The Atlantic, in a 2015 piece about the ongoing debate on the papyrus, mentions how biased journalists were on this topic. When a journal of New Testament studies suggested the papyrus is a fake, everyone ignored it. When a scientific publication said almost at the same time that the papyrus was legit, the media was all over it.

The disgust I feel at how media were taken in by this “Jesus’ wife” story dates back to a splashy 2006 press conference I attended at the National Geographic headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.

The claim: That a manuscript had been found, supposedly written by Judas, was alleging Jesus put Judas up to his betrayal. The reporters ate it up. Within a year, this “Gospel of Judas” was found out to be totally false and the National Geographic Society’s translations were dead wrong. And yet six years later, many of the same media got taken in by a Harvard professor with an alleged scrap from another manuscript, saying Jesus had a wife.

Earlier in the piece, King had said that any forgery would be “a career breaker” for her. Sabar was kind to her in the piece but the truth is, King accepted the papyrus because its message was what she wanted to hear. I am curious what kind of blowback she’ll get from this mess.

Maybe she’s too embarrassed to talk with reporters, but I hope whoever gets to her next can ask her where this leaves her academic career.

Please respect our Commenting Policy